I spent the fall of 1999 on an internship in Washington, DC. Somehow I'd managed to fall into a posh gig at the world-renowned Congressional Country Club; a club that had hosted multiple major championships and boasted of a membership overflowing with politicians, lobbyists, dignitaries and the occasional celebrity. My job was to take the crappy shifts in the golf shop so the staff of golf professionals could oversleep in the mornings or play golf in the afternoons. I was only 20 at the time (I actually turned 21 while in DC and I will always be thankful for my friend Jim Schouller, an assistant pro at the time, who took it upon himself to make sure I had a birthday to remember. Two days filled with golf, casinos and a few too many watered-down house drinks in Atlantic City gave me a good '21st' story to carry with me for my life) and was still in the fast lane of growing up that had started the previous summer while on my first internship on Long Island. DC, and the months soon after, would be the some of the best and worst times of my life.
I'll never forget the day of October 25th, 1999. I was working a mid-day shift in the golf shop. The season was in full wind-down mode as the temperatures dropped and members kids had to go back to private school. Autumn in DC is truly something to behold. Such massive trees, bunched to tightly that the roads of the northwest beltway turn into tunnels of electric yellows, oranges and reds. After the brutal heat and humidity of summer, the cool temperatures seems to put everyone at ease to the point that even the traffic seems to be lighter.
One of the best things about the shop at Congressional was that it had three huge TV's for members to catch up on the latest news. So many members were deeply involved in the political system that we always had one TV tuned to CSPAN, which we would mute whenever the member would leave the shop. In addition to news, we always had a TV tuned to The Golf Channel. The network was still relatively new in 1999. Most cable systems didn't carry it. But the deep pockets on a country club with over 1,500 members allowed us the satellite access to pick it up. This was a glorious perk for us shop hands working for $8 an hour. It was on the golf channel some time late that morning that I first heard the news about Payne Stewart. The regular programming was interrupted by a news flash. A private jet believed to be carrying a PGA Tour player from Orlando to Dallas had veered hundreds of miles off course and there was no contact with the pilot. Initially, the name of the PGA Tour player was not know, but it was quickly learned that it was Payne Stewart. Over the next few hours there were additional reports that military aircraft had been scrambled to intercept the plane, and that the windows of the jet were frosted over; a sure sign of loss of cabin pressure. Analysts were interview as to the fuel capacity of this type of plane and there was speculation over how long it could stay in the air. It was also reported that the military was considering shooting the plane down if it looked like it could crash into a populated area. Then, sometime later in the day, the news came down that the plane had crashed in Mina, SD after an swift dive.
For me, the events of that day were surreal. The previous four months had been something out of a fairy tale for Payne. In June, he had won his second US Open title defeating both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson down the stretch. The win was made even more improbable due to Payne's meltdown at the previous year's US Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. Payne had led that tournament from the outstart, and seemed to be cruising to victory when a final round of miscues and bad luck allowed Lee Janzen to catch and pass him late in the round. Losses of that variety would typically spell the end of a career, especially for a professional golfer in his early 40's; an age when the eyesight begins to blurr and the once-steely nerve of youth gives way to the shaky hands of middle age. So, when Payne rolled in a 15-foot par putt in the drizzle of a summer Sunday in Pinehurst, NC, the golf world had a new hero.
Three months later Payne would play a part in another major event in golf history when he was part of the victorious US Ryder Cup team. The victory itself was not anything of legend. The US team was heavily favored to win. But the way that they won, a dramatic final day comeback from a seemingly insurmountable 10-6 deficit, is what put that team into the history books forever. All this said, I couldn't believe that he was gone. Death had always been a deep fear of mine that I had done well to keep out of my conscious, but now I was forced to stare it right in the face. A major name in the sport that I loved had been taken from the world at the cruelest and most unlikely of times. It didn't make sense. It seemed unfair. The world recoiled from the same sentiments.
It was during the coming weeks and months that I would be forced to stare my fears of death, as well as many other deeply troubling questions about the nature of life, in the face. First, I had to go through the Y2K fears that were building leading up to the millennium celebration. I returned home from DC in early December and had a good month to relax before returning to college for the winter semester. I spent the majority of that time watching television and I was able to hear hundreds of 'experts' speculating as to the effects of the Y2K programming issue on our society. Most analysis was subdued and cautious over and kind of overreaction, but there were still some individuals who were saying the world was going to change forever. They warned of our communications systems being crippled, causing a halt to our economy, causing mass hysteria and panic. My father, in what he called an attempt to be 'prepared', bought into much of this and spend thousands of dollars on preparations for an upcoming disaster. I remember the night of New Year's Eve. I had been invited to a big party hosted by some friends. There was a girl from my high school days that was supposed to be there and I was really excited to see her. However as the ball dropped in NYC that night, I was at my mother's side, ready to carry out my family's doomsday action plan. As the countdown reached single digits, I remember being confident that the world was not about to come to an end, but there was a part of me that felt a deep panic that there was a chance I could lose the lifestyle that I was used to. I believe it was about eight seconds after midnight, with the world spared from meltdown, that I was in my car on the way to the party to see a girl.
Three months later, March of 2000, I accompanied my best friend Ben on an educational sabbatical to the world epicenter of knowledge and thought: Cancun, Mexico. We had been planning this trip for about a year, and to be truthful I was not nearly as excited as Ben was. I had fears about being in a foreign country; fears that were exacerbated by the understanding that I would spend most of my time intoxicated in that foreign country. I did my best to conjure up the "Whoo Hoo!" excitement that a college junior should have when he's young and free and heading to a tropical paradise filled with drunken young women. I even made a vow to myself that I would use this opportunity to overcome my fear of women and take the big step into manhood. Of course that never happened, but it was a fun trip aside from the times I had to bribe the Mexican police to get them to release one of my friends who had been arrested for urinating in public; twice.
I came home from Cancun recharged and ready for spring in Michigan. I was overjoyed to be back on US soil where I felt safe and protected by the generally-honorable society around me. I walked in the door of my parent's house, fresh off the plane, when my life took an amazing and unexpected turn. My mother greeted me in the kitchen, and after a good hug she pulled away I could see she'd been crying. It wasn't the "I missed you so much" crying, although I'm sure she had missed me and was happy that I hadn't been abducted by Mexican warlords. Her tears belied a deeper regret and I knew she had to tell me something. She sat me down on the couch and began to tell me that the muscle tightness in her thigh that she has been dealing with for a few months was actually not muscle tightness at all. It was cancer; the bad kind. She needed surgery and the doctors weren't sure of the chances of her recovery. The tumor was huge and surrounded a nerve. There was talk of amputation; disability at a the least. As I sat there crying with my mom, the person who meant more to me than anyone, the phone rang. That phone call would prove to be the turning point in my life.
The story is long, amazing and beautiful from there. The phone call was from an old friend from college who I hadn't seen in over a year. Her name was Brandy, a sweet and beautiful girl I had met during my first semester on campus. I had always had a crush on her, but our relationship was one of fun friendship. Nothing more. Over the next weeks I found myself taking daily trips to the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit to see mom through her cancer surgery. I would spend an hour or so with her and then make the 2 hour trip back to Kalamazoo to spend time with a girl that I was fast falling for. Less than a month after learning of my mom's cancer, she was pronounced cancer-free. The surgeon had managed to remove the tumor while sparing the nerve in her thigh. Since the tumor was encapsulated, there was no risk of it having spread, and there was a strong likelihood that it would never come back. To add to the miracle, mom returned to her true love, running, within a few months. Today there are no effects from the surgery that removed two of her three hamstring muscles. Also within a month, I had found my missing piece. Not Brandy, although she remains to this day my best friend and a wife I could only dream of, but something much more astonishing. In my having to deal with so many core fears of death and abandonment, I had started to investigate the claims of Jesus. A Jewish Rabbi from 2000 years ago who had made some remarkable claims to go along with his revolutionary teaching. I didn't know it at the time, but I had begun the journey of the age, and I would never be the same.
This Sunday will be a bittersweet day. I will be up north at my parents house on the lake. I will be there with my wife and my sweet baby son. I will wake up with the knowledge that I have nothing to fear, and I will spend another day searching out the wonders of a god who loves me with a consuming fire. I will enjoy every breath. And I will think of Payne Stewart. Ten years gone.